Saturday, February 29, 2020

173 (2019-2020): Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND (seen February 28, 2020)

"Khmer Rock"

Imagine, if you will, a Holocaust drama about a Jewish klezmer band, in which one of the musicians, failing to flee the oncoming Nazis in time, ends up in a concentration camp, where he’s tortured under the supervision of an Eichmann-like authority. Then imagine that this dire situation is surrounded by a heavy infusion of rambunctious, even joyous klezmer music, ending with a festive, musical explosion in which the audience is up on its feet, dancing at its seats, arms waving, as if watching a concert at the Beacon.  

Courtney Reed (C) and company. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Yes. A show combining genocidal horror with head-banging joy. Not an easy combination to imagine but that’s what—give or take a few drawbacks—playwright Lauren Yee and director Chay Yew have just about pulled off in Cambodian Rock Band, originally produced by the South Coast Repertory and subsequently seen at a number of other venues. The show, of course, isn’t about the Nazi Holocaust, but deals instead with the similarly apocalyptic reign of Cambodia’s fanatical communist party, the Khmer Rouge, under the murderous leadership of Pol Pot in the late 1970s, leaving two million dead in its wake.
Courtney Reed, Joe Ngo. 
The musician at its heart, Chum (Joe Ngo), is a guitarist in a Cambodian rock band, the Cyclos, and the music that they play, coming from several sources, is mainly from the playbook of Dengue Fever. That’s the overheated name of an acclaimed American band that originated in the 1990s doing covers of Cambodian rock from the pre-Khmer Rouge days, the original musicians having died or disappeared during the mass slaughters and detentions.

Yee’s two-act play, whose script declares “some of this really happened,” at first seems a condensed introduction to the Khmer Rouge’s bloody period of power, from 1975-1979. Her dramaturgic hook is the return in 2008 to Cambodia of Chum, who eventually fled to America, where he and his wife raised a daughter, Neary (Courtney Reed, Aladdin).
Company of Cambodian Rock Band.
Chum’s return is related to Neary’s work for the International Center for Transitional Justice, concerned with war crimes. She’s investigating the deeds of a Khmer Rouge leader known as Duch, responsible for the deaths of 20,000 at the notorious S-21 prison, once a school, now a museum. Seven people are known to have survived but evidence of an eighth has come to light, and Neary needs to find that person. Dad doesn’t think this a good idea.

Act one, set both in 2008 and 1975, sets up the background by educating the audience about the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, as well as its socially and technologically oppressive ideology (a ban on music was one of its lesser restrictions). Artists and intellectuals were considered no better than dust. At the same time, it establishes—often through broad comic strokes—the father-daughter relationship between Chum and Neary that opens a door into the past revealing what Chum endured. Linda Cho’s costumes precisely capture each period’s look, especially those of the bell-bottomed, polyester 70s.

Finally, it presents Chum’s psychedelic surf rock band finishing its one and only album just before the Khmer Rouge takes power. The act is so concerned with exposition, though, that it’s easy to wonder where its dramatic heart is. (Another seven songs—including Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”—are heard in act two.)
Moses Villarama, Francis Jue.
Reed, who also plays Neary, is star-quality good as Sothea, the lead singer, both because of her considerable charisma and beauty (her sinuous hand and arm movements based on Cambodian dance will light many fires) and her stunning vocals.
Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Francis Jue, Courtney Reed, Moses Villarama.
Weaving the present-day events together with the past, and providing the show with a theatrically inviting premise, is Duch himself, played as a Cabaret-like host by Francis Jue (Soft Power), addressing us directly with a fascinating blend of insinuating panache, sardonic humor, and wicked charm. He even mocks words like “genocide.”
Moses Villarama, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed, Abraham Kim.
In act two, however, he takes on a far darker tone as the set assumes the look of an interrogation room, with Duch ripping off his emcee persona and exposing his insidious side in confrontations with Chum. Like Adolf Eichmann, he’ll fall back on the excuse that he “was just following orders.” Chum, for his part, will have his own guilty secrets to deal with.
Francis Jue.
Chay Yew’s lively direction swings back and forth between bold theatricality and basic realism, although the former generally gets the edge. Joe Ngo—himself a son of Khmer Rouge survivors—gives a dynamic performance as Chum. (He’s played it in two previous productions.) He starts off, though, with such clownish behavior that, in contrast to the grounded personality of Reed’s Courtney, it borders on annoying. However, when, over the arc of the performance, you watch the demands placed upon the actor—who also must be an expert musician—you forgive the early exaggeration and applaud him for sculpting an unforgettable portrait.
Joe Ngo, Francis Jue.
Yee’s language is always vibrantly alive, and, while her plotting is sometimes awkward and contrived (the story depends on a huge coincidence), she nevertheless manages to compel attention throughout its two hours and 15 minutes. Cambodian Rock Band maintains its entertainment value while making a significant contribution to educating audiences about the Khmer Rouge’s carnage, including footnotes on America’s own responsibility for what happened.
Joe Ngo, Francis Jue.
Cambodian Rock Band is hard to categorize, however, since its music—like what you’d hear in certain jukebox musicals—is unconnected to its story; many lyrics are actually in Cambodian. Even with 13 numbers, it’s hard to call it a musical. Whatever you call it, you won’t soon forget it.
Company of Cambodian Rock Band.
I admit to having felt a bit uncomfortable at joining in the celebratory finale (Jue, dashing among the audience as the music blasted away, gave me, of all people, a cowbell to beat) but I also felt I’d been present at a work of raw theatrical power. Unquestionably, Cambodian Rock Band rocks.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 22

172. (2019-2020): Review: ALL THE NATALIE PORTMANS (seen February 27, 2020)

"You Always Hurt the One You Love"

For my review of All the Natalie Portmans please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ

Thursday, February 27, 2020

171. (2019-2020): Review: INCANTATA (seen Februray 26, 2020)

“Disenchanted Evening”

Just as the title, Incantata, may not be clear to you (it’s Italian for “enchanted” and similar words), so may the same be said of this play’s numerous arcane, archaic, and foreign words, place names, and allusions.

Stanley Townsend. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Incantata is an elegy by multi-award winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who teaches at Princeton. It memorializes Muldoon’s partner, the painter Mary Farl Powers (1948-1992), who died at 42 from breast cancer. More performance art than conventional drama, it provides a tour de force opportunity for the solo actor, Stanley Townsend, who introduced it, under Sam Yate’s imaginative staging, at the 2018 Galway International Arts Festival and then at Dublin's Gate Theatre.  
Unlike my plus-one and another friend who saw the play with me, I found myself without the time to read it first. While they emerged deeply impressed, I struggled to grasp more than the bare outlines of its premise: the speaker’s memories of his lover, his lamentation for her loss from cancer, and the emotional toll it took on him. 

This, however, proved insufficient to draw me into this essentially nondramatic exercise, regardless of the skill of all concerned in realizing it. The text, which I read afterward, often eluded me during the performance. Incantata, which runs only around an hour, is composed more for the reader than the viewer, in a verbal style reminiscent of the abstractions of Samuel Beckett (whose work—and person—it often references) and James Joyce.
Unfamiliar words in English, Gaelic, French, and Latin (and perhaps languages I didn’t recognize), flow like Dublin’s River Liffey through Muldoon’s cascade of allusions, in which art, literature, music, food, nature, and even commercial products (like Lucozade) all play their part, as do acts of Irish political terrorism.

Muldoon gradually, albeit obliquely, describes a woman of great generosity who believed everything in life is predetermined, that nothing is arbitrary, and who refused modern medical treatments  (like surgery) for homeopathic ones. He practically blames her for her own death: “You were determined to cut yourself off in your prime.” 

But such narrative elements are the exception, not the rule in the speaker’s rambling discourse, much of it filled with the dropping of Irish and European place names that had particular meaning for Muldoon and Powers. In this context, they have more value for their sounds than their evocation of locales of which most of us have never heard. 
Yate’s directorial conceit places Townsend as the unnamed Man in a crude semblance of an artist’s studio (designed by Rosanna Vize), one corner filled with potatoes. Sheets of paper on which small images pressed on them in repetitive patterns are taped to the walls. When the audience enters, Townsend, in gray work clothes and cap, is already busy carving an image out of a spud, which he’ll eventually combine with paint to make a pressing representing the Inca glyph for a mouth, whose significance he’ll briefly explain. 

Everything the man does is presumably being recorded on video, the images covering the walls. A few sequences suggest the video (designed by Jack Phelan) is prerecorded, not live, requiring expert coordination between actor and technology. The camera, however, slowly morphs into a ghostly semblance of Mary as the actor manipulates it and even drapes it with a shawl or cap, as appropriate.
Meanwhile, music, in an assortment of styles assembled by SinĂ©ad Diskin, with an original score by Teho Tehardo, accompanies much of the action. Particularly effective is the selection heard at the start, when the old 50s doo-wop standard, “Silhouettes,” is played as the Man creates the silhouette of the Inca mouth image. 
Townsend, middle-aged and silver-haired, clearly understands each nook and cranny of Muldoon’s complex text. He brings conviction and passion to the work, giving it great vivacity despite its often obscure nature.
Notwithstanding Townsend’s ardent acting or the play’s poetic values and the painful loss they express, though, Incantata remains an abstruse poem that lacks the dramatic power to evoke what its title promises—enchantment.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through March 15

170. (2019-2020): Review: TUMACHO (seen February 25, 2020)

"When Too Mucho Is Not Enough"

Add caption

For my review of Tumacho please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

169 (2019-2020): Review: DANA H. (seen February 21, 2020)

"An Uncommon Woman, An Uncommon Play"

What is Theatre? asks the title of a book by renowned critic Eric Bentley. It’s a question that can never be answered definitively as creative theatremakers continue to find new and surprising answers. This season, for example, the Vineyard Theatre, not especially known for experimental work, has been exploring the nature of theatre by testing the proximity of the staged to the lived experience through the presentation of plays that use the actual words spoken by strong women who faced dire circumstances. 
Deirdre O'Connell. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
First was Is This A Room, a verbatim docu-dramatization of the interrogation undergone by Reality Winner at the hands of the FBI. Interesting as that endeavor was, its impact pales next to that made by Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. In this play, which premiered at Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group and was then seen at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, an actress lip-syncs the recorded voice of Dana Higginbotham, mother of the fast ascending playwright. Unlike Reality Winner, there’s no reason you should know who she is. Let me tell you, though, she not only has a remarkable story to tell but the method Hnath has chosen to tell it, as well as the astonishing performance of Deirdre O’Connell, make Dana H. the most riveting thing I’ve seen in months.
Who would have thought that an actress, sitting alone in a detailed replica of a tacky Florida motel room (designed by Andrew Boyce), the bed unmade, lip-syncing someone’s actual words recorded in an interview, could be so piercingly effective? But Dana’s story and O’Connell’s uncanny ability to incarnate her without so much as a peep from her own voice makes this one piece of theatre that is absolutely not to be missed.
Hnath—who keeps impressing with provocatively entertaining plays like The Thin Place, Hillary and Clinton, and A Doll’s House Part 2—has created Dana H. by editing hours of interviews with his mother conducted in 2015 by Steve Cosson (artistic director of the investigative theatre company, The Civilians). During the 75-minute presentation, the only others we see are a stagehand, who fulfills a technical task at the start, and a motel maid (uncredited).

The latter appears about three quarters of the way through, after Dana has exited, to make up the bed and clean the room to the accompaniment of sound designer Mikhail Fiksel’s mix of ultrafast audio clips and an accelerating musical score. Meanwhile, Paul Toben’s lights pop on and off in rapid, phantasmagoric sequences, a device intensifying our desire for Dana to return and provide the resolution to her dangling story.

At the beginning, Dana introduces herself as a hospital chaplain counseling people with dying loved ones, and the dying as well, easing their passage to the other side, a practice she provides across religious lines. The essence of her tale, however, concerns what happened in 1997, when Lucas was in college, after she began counseling a sociopathic, white supremacist, recently released from prison.  His name was Jim and he was a walking keg of TNT, trained in criminal behavior from childhood. Despite his therapeutic reliance on Dana, he kidnapped and beat her, used her as an accomplice, and even raped her.
Dana’s plight, exacerbated by the failure of most police to help her (it’s her word against his), is expressed in emotionally restrained yet electrically charged terms. She is obviously a woman of awesome inner strength (she believes her having been beaten by her own parents helped her cope with Jim’s violence), forcing us to consider what we might have done under similar circumstances. Even the story of the aftermath to her traumatic experience displays a character of incredible resilience. She’s the embodiment of what it takes to be someone who helps people suffering from what her program bio describes as “the effects of trauma, loss, and life threatening or life limiting issues.” It’s best to not to reveal any further details of Dana’s mesmerizing narrative, so spellbinding will they be when first you hear them.

O’Connell, one of New York’s finest and most regularly seen actresses (The Way West, Scarcity), was trained to lip-sync by Steve Cuiffo. So effective was his tutelage, aided by the on-point direction of Les Waters, that it’s impossible to detect where the recording leaves off and the lip-syncing begins.
Not only is her timing perfect—the verbal stumbles, the coughs, the hesitations, and the like—but her behavior so convincingly conveys the possible facial expressions, gestures, physical tics, and movements of Hnath’s mother, it’s impossible to believe she isn’t speaking the words with her own voice. O’Connell is talented enough to have spoken the lines themselves but there’s no denying that hearing Dana's memories emanating from the controlled but quietly expressive voice of the woman who endured them is what makes Dana H. the must-see and must-hear play of the moment.

Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through March 29 (Extended through April 11)

Monday, February 24, 2020

168 (2019-2020): Review: ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE (seen

"Three Generations of Women Face a Painful Legacy"

For my review of Anatomy of a Suicide please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Guest Review 22 (2019-2020): Review: RIDDLE OF THE TRILOBITES

“A Lot of Learning to Do”***

By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of a trilobite. Worse, I thought it was a made-up term for Collaboration and Flint Repertory Theatre’s production of Riddle of the Trilobites, presented at the New Victory Theater.  
Riddle of the Trilobites. All photos: Alexis Buatti-Ramos.
If you’ve read my reviews, you’ve heard me gush about the educational programming that the New Victory offers prior to each performance. In this case, I had a lot of learning to do alongside my six-year-old companion, Natalie. We got super lucky—Natalie is a dinosaur-obsessed future paleontologist, and the main activity was “digging” for trilobite fossils! She (and I) spent a good half hour learning about these buggy prehistoric creatures that lived in the ocean and are now best known for their fossilized remains, which you can find at the Museum of Natural History.  
Riddle of the Trilobites.
Of course, the rest of our learning happened at the show itself. This musical, written by Geo Decas O’Donnell and Jordan Seavey (book and lyrics) and Nicholas Williams (music), uses exquisite (not to mention adorable) puppetry by Amanda Villalobos to explore this era, which predated dinos, ooga-booga hominids, and anyone else you typically associate with the land before time.  
The stage is a pleasure to look at thanks to some truly transformational lighting achieved by Eric Southern. It’s molting day, and adolescent trilobite Aphra (a delightful Sibiso Mabena) discovers she has markings that set her apart from her fellow creatures. This launches a journey for her and her bestie, Judomiah (a wonderfully animated Richard Saudek), to solve the meaning of the titular riddle: trilobites cannot live but they will not die. Aphra’s realization that the trilobites will live on as rock (fossils) culminates in celebration.

This ambitious production touches on a lot of themes, such as fear of the unknown, climate change, self-discovery, and species extinction. Educational, yes, but it’s a bit much and a bit long. At almost an hour and a half, the young audience at the performance I attended was restless toward the end. 
Riddle of the Trilobites.
While Riddle of the Trilobites perhaps lacks the sophisticated storytelling of The Pout-Pout Fish, another aquatic puppetry musical, seen earlier this season, the script, riddled with dad jokes, gets lots of laughs from young theatregoers. 

Natalie reported that it was the most special day of her life. Okay, she is six and prone to hyperbole, but I can’t overstate the importance of exposing children to good theatre. And now that I know all about the fascinating trilobites, I can’t wait to show off to the troglodytes at my next dinner party. 

New Victory Theater
209 W. 42nd St., NYC
Closes February 23

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade and lives in Sunnyside, Queens. IG: @elyseorecchio

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

166 (2019-2020): Review: BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY (seen Februay 16, 2020)

"What Happens to a Dream Deferred?"

A haunting image closes the Keen Company’s satisfactory, if unremarkable, production of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, now on Theatre Row. 

It’s a sultry night in 1930 Harlem and, as she’s done before, Angel (Alfie Fuller, BLKS), a sensual, dark-skinned woman, rebounding from disappointment, sits at a window in her Harlem flat, exposing a burnished shoulder and flipping open a fan. As a predatory shadow falls across her ice-cold eyes, she surveys the street outside, searching for her next opportunity to come along.
John-Andrew Morrison, Alfie Fuller, Sheldon Woodley. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Cleage’s play, alternately gripping and frustrating, is making its New York premiere 25 years after it had its first production at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. It starred Phylicia Rashad as Angel, and was followed by multiple other productions, in the U.S. and abroad. Cleage's drama examines the relationships of five characters, just after the height of the Harlem Renaissance. During its glory days, black American artists, like the play’s often referenced Langston Hughes, achieved hitherto unknown heights of accomplishment and recognition. Sadly, their hopeful dreams and aspirations were soon to be shattered by the nightmare of the Great Depression.
Jasminn Johnson, Alfie Fuller, Sheldon Woodley.
When the play begins, Angel, 34, the kept woman of Nick, an Italian gangster, has been betrayed by his marriage to another woman, provoking her to insult him publicly. Not a good idea. The price: her man, her belongings, and her apartment, as well as her job singing at the famed Cotton Club. Also fired is her best friend, Guy (John-Andrew Morrison), elegantly accoutered and openly homosexual, at a time when to be so was to court attacks. Credit Asa Benally for his and all the other nicely designed period costumes. 
It’s in Guy’s Harlem brownstone apartment, where he puts Angel up as she tries to get back on her feet, that most of the action transpires. Scenes are also played across the hall in the apartment of a mutual friend, Delia (Jasminn Johnson)—nicknamed “Deal”—and, using the space fronting the stage, in the street. Unfortunately, You-Shin Chen’s clumsy scenic design fails to solve the complex needs of this arrangement.
John-Andrew Morrison, Jasminn Johnson.
Angel (don’t let the name deceive you) is transactional, a woman who doesn’t shy from deploying her physical charms to gain male support. Speaking of her earlier work as a prostitute, she notes: “It was better than living on the street.” When Leland (Khiry Walker), a sweet but super-conservative, church-going country fellow from Alabama who—seeing her resemblance to his late wife—falls in love and wants to marry her, she agrees, even if she doesn’t love him. He represents the security her joblessness doesn’t provide. Eventually, she’ll do something shocking, not so much the deed itself but its shallow motivation.

Delia is the opposite of the flashy Angel, a frumpy, self-effacing 25-year-old virgin. Her social consciousness, inspired by Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement, helps her convince Harlem bigwigs on the board of the Abyssinian Baptist Church—whose pastor is Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.—to support a family planning center. At the time, fearful black leaders considered birth control a genocidal conspiracy to control the propagation of their race.

Helping to further Delia’s cause is Sam (Sheldon Woodley), a hip 40-year-old physician at Harlem Hospital, a busy baby deliverer who also dabbles in abortions. His emerging love affair with Delia balances that of Leland with Angel until their fates tragically intertwine.
Alfie Fuller, Jasminn Johnson.
Meanwhile, in a play concerned with folks dreaming of a better life, Guy is obsessed with getting to design costumes for the popular black cabaret star, Josephine Baker, in Paris. It’s a goal he speaks of almost as Chekhov’s sisters do about going to Moscow, albeit with a rosier outcome.
Alfie Fuller, Khiry Walker.
In the second act, the two-and-a-half-hour play welds together its significant themes, among them homophobia (Leland calls Guy’s orientation “an abomination”), abortion, birth control, female empowerment, prohibition, joblessness, and the struggle of black artists for recognition. A script largely concerned with character development ultimately piles incident on incident, not always convincingly, to bring about a foregone (if you subscribe to the rule of Chekhov’s gun) melodramatic conclusion.
Sheldon Woodly, Jasminn Johnson.
Cleage’s well-researched writing captures a time and place, given flesh and blood by resonant performances. Fuller is dynamic as the Angel with soiled wings, her tough-as-leather persona a sturdy shield against the struggle for her daily bread. Morrison plays Guy with upbeat confidence but tends to be one-note, while Walker’s Leland epitomizes the innocent, if ignorant, Southern rube. Johnson is appealingly serious as Delia, but her casting creates a problem. She’s so much bigger than Fuller you can’t help but wonder how the latter could fit so perfectly into one of her dresses. Finally, Woodley is a believable Sam, even if it’s hard to believe he’s only 40.
John-Andrew Morrison, Jasminn Johnson.
LA Williams’s staging, which links the scenes with Lindsey Jones’s bluesy music, is vivid enough but doesn’t solve the set’s problems, like the upstage area showing characters going who knows where within the brownstone’s interior. I understood there to have been a picture of Josephine Baker hanging on a wall at stage right but, seated on the extreme left of the auditorium, I had to take it on faith because the sight lines hid it entirely.
Sheldon Woodley, Jasminn Johnson, John-Andrew Morrison, Khiry Walker, Alfie Fuller.
I still give Williams props, however, for that closing image of Angel, sitting at her window, her features heightened by Oona Curley’s lighting, ready to pounce on the next male-ticket to stroll her way.

Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 14